Thirty-two years ago today, on July 15, 1981, Baltimore’s larger-than-life mayor, William Donald Shaefer, made his legendary descent—in striped swimsuit and straw boater—into the seal pool at the National Aquarium.
The new facility on the city’s reviving Inner Harbor was itself wearing a hat of sorts: a glass pyramid filled with greenery. As C. Fraser Smith writes in his biography of the colorful, volatile mayor (and later governor), Schaefer “was determined to give his aquarium a crowning innovation. It would feature not only an angular geometric design of glassed-in shark tanks and aquatic habitat, but also a roof-level exhibition of tropical vegetation and exotic birds: a rain forest in Baltimore.”
Schaefer’s rain forest is what I call a “giant pander,” a major initiative conceived primarily to attract a particular audience, expand the total audience, or both. The term, which puns on the pandas that zoos have long competed to acquire as surefire visitor draws, is meant to classify, not disparage. Some panders are more admirable than others.
When Theodore Reed, then director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, successfully lobbied to bring Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to Washington in 1972, for example, it was a win-win-win. Attendance went up, financial support increased, and the pair symbolized the zoo’s dedication to breeding rare species. (Reed died on July 2 at the age of 90, and his obituaries, in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, tell an inspiring story.)
In other panda news, Rusty the Red Panda (Beanie Baby available) disappeared from his enclosure at the National Zoo late last month. The alarm went out on Twitter. He was soon sighted in Adams-Morgan, caught red-handed, and returned to the zoo and his would-be mate, Shama.* Rusty’s excellent adventure was covered by, among others, the Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, local and network television, and the Huffington Post.
The zoo’s outreach to social and traditional media might be called a “lesser pander” (lesser being an alternate for red when one speaks of pandas). By a lesser pander, I mean an approach or a component adopted primarily for publicity or more elusive “buzz” purposes.
A lesser pander: One of the most satisfying small art exhibitions I’ve ever seen was “Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures,” presented in 1996-97 at the National Gallery of Art; the Yale University Art Gallery, where it was organized; and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Along with every known rowing-related painting and drawing by Eakins, the Yale installation included a actual scull that happened to belong to Meryl Streep.
Lesser panders run the gamut: orchestras accompanying classic films, theater productions employing local (or national) celebrities as actors, museums hosting exhibitions that tie in to licensed characters and merchandise.
I invite your submissions of giant and lesser panders undertaken by art museums, history museums, orchestras, chamber music series, opera companies, theater companies, dance companies, and other cultural presenters, including those you work for (anonymity protected).
Even when successful, giant panders can be dangerous to institutional identity. Lesser panders are relatively harmless, though they can be off-putting to certain audiences. However, a lesser pander can sometimes evolve into a giant (an evolutionary impossibility for the mammals).
Some classic giant panders for your consideration:
- The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum (1978)
- BAM’s Next Wave Festival (1983)
- Met Titles at the Metropolitan Opera (1995)
- “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim (1998)
In next week’s post, assisted by your input, I will tackle what makes panders—that is, audience-focused initiatives—effective or ineffective.
* Actually, his paws appear to be brown or black.